Was James an Unbeliever Before the Resurrection?

Traditionally James is thought to have been an “unbeliever” before the resurrection. Like Paul, he encountered Jesus after the resurrection and “converted” to Christianity. This description is troublesome for several reasons. First, the unbelief of James concerned his understanding of who Jesus was during his ministry. He was an “unbeliever,” but the disciples were not clear on who Jesus was nor did they fully understand his messianic mission. They too left Jesus in the end, betraying him in the Garden.

Jesus and his brother JamesSecond, James seems to have had a traditional Jewish worldview and theology. He does not suddenly become a Jewish thinker after his encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Paul, James would have understood his brother’s activity through the lens of Second Temple Judaism and like the Pharisees questioned some of Jesus’ activities and teachings.

However, it is possible to read the data in the gospels differently and argue that James was in fact a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection. There are only a few texts which refer to the family of Jesus in the Gospels. In Mark 3:21 indicates that the family thought Jesus was “out of his mind,” but 3:31-35 says that they came “seeking him,” presumably to take him home.

In John 7:1-5, however, there is a clear statement that his brothers did not believe in him. But when one looks at this text, it is in the context of Jesus’ signs. The brothers are urging him to do his publicly rather than in secret. They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.

Perhaps a way to get at this problem is to as if Mary was an “unbeliever.” To my knowledge no one would suggest that Mary “did not believe in Jesus,” yet in Mark 3:31-35 Mary is also seeking Jesus. In John 2, Mary seems interested in Jesus doing a miracle in a more public way. There are no scholars who would argue that Mary was a non-believer in Jesus, even though the evidence is the same as that of James. No one would think of Mary having a “conversion experience” after the resurrection. She was in the upper room after the ascension, waiting with the disciples and the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14). In general, one could describe Mary and James similarly prior to the resurrection.

James, like Paul, had a traditional Jewish worldview prior to the resurrection. How far did James move away from Judaism when he encountered Jesus?  What evidence is there in the letter of James to support any changes within Second Temple Judaism?

14 thoughts on “Was James an Unbeliever Before the Resurrection?

  1. Mary stored all these things in her heart:) “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14…she knew:)

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    • Thanks Denise…I agree “she knew,” but I have always wondered if she fully understood the meaning of Immanuel until after the resurrection. And yes I know this is a similar question to that song “Mary Did You Know?”

      I suppose the point here is not so much doubting Mary’s faith, but to parallel her experience with James since both witnessed the miracles of Jesus and came to similar conclusions at one point when they came to see him in Mark 3. Maybe Mary is more special to most people so no one would doubt her pre-Easter faith, but James may be more similar than we are willing to accept.

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  2. Frist I would like to hit on this,”They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.” P. Long
    In the past everyone in the old testament that came to save the people were up front about who they were and what they were doing. The Israelites and Jews were a people of signs, they always looked for signs because that is how God spoke to them, through prophets and signs. But Jesus being different was there to save people not destroy people.
    In the past as well like in Judges over and over God saves his people and then they fall away, and then they come back, and get saved again. And it was with an army and with great violence generally but Jesus came to save the people, all the people not just his people. So to do that you can’t go around killing all the unbelievers right. So he came to save in the way of being the truth and the light to people.
    Which the Jewish people could not understand because he has never done that before. I have herd it said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So as such God is not insane and changed things. It is just hard for them to understand that is all. Plus to an insider, going outside the norm may seem insane, but they have it backwards is all.
    So when Jesus was preforming miracles in secret or doing and saying things people thought was too crazy he was actually just doing what they needed. Now, if I was his family I would probably go to get Jesus so I could see what he was doing for myself, also I would want him to do it again for me personally just to know for sure he was doing these things. So that’s my take on why they went to go get him, they were curious I mean wouldn’t you be?
    In the book of James it talks about the law in the spiritual aspect and so I don’t believe James moved away from the traditions of Judaism, but rather incorporated Jesus’s teachings into them. Throughout James it speaks more in the tune of tuning yourself inwardly with the law in stead of outwardly. The law was to help Jews know when they did something wrong, the only reasons they study the law was to get around or away with something, in a way avoid the law. But James speaks of up holding the laws and even more so take them to an inner place within yourself to know the law truthfully.

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  3. James remains pretty Jewish, it not like he switched from Jew to Christian, he is just now a believer that the Messiah came and was his brother. His focus went from waiting for the messiah to how do we live knowing that he came and is going to return. It also makes sense that he might not have been a believer before the resurrection on two fronts. The first is the idea that people were waiting for their own presuppositions of what the Messiah was supposed to be like and do. Jesus didn’t really do much of that when he came. The second front is the fact that Jesus was his brother. As you mention in the blog his family even thought he was crazy. I can’t imagine what I would think if my brother said he was the son of God and was going to rise from the dead.

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  4. I think that the distinction should be made about knowing and believing. James knew that Jesus was special, James knew that Jesus was a man of God, possibly a prophet to lead the people to redemption and away from the path of destruction. However, I would have to argue that James did not actually believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and even if he did believe that he was the Messiah he would be expecting completely different actions and end result. Jesus even says in Luke 4:24 “Truly I tell you, (…) no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” The family relations would also come into play here, for James would probably trust that Jesus knew what he was doing and that he was divinely inspired and gifted in a way not seen in four hundred years, but to actually believe that your older brother is in fact fully God in the flesh would probably be much too far fetched to believe before the resurrection. A prophet may be believable, but anything beyond that would be beyond the scope of imagination much less belief. In light of this, I would have to argue that James knew Jesus to be special but probably did not believe in him as the Messiah who would save Israel.

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  5. I believe that Mary knew and understood that Jesus was the Son of God but whether or not she understood what Jesus would do or become is more questionable. She obviously knew that Jesus was divine because she knew that He did not come into being by natural ways but “pondering them in her heart” suggests she did not fully understand the outcome. Perhaps the “misunderstanding” James had came from Joseph. If James was the child of Joseph with Mary, making him younger than Jesus, there is the possibility that doubt was brought into his mind through Joseph. Think about the faith it would require for Joseph to trust that Jesus came from God, especially since this would be the first and only ocurance where this has happened. If I was Joseph there would at least be a little doubt in my mind. In fact, anyone who knew the truth that Jesus had the claim of not being conceived of natural causes would naturally wonder whether that was true. I think there would be an underlying doubt to Joseph, and that it probably would have come to the rest of his brothers as well. It would be that story that seems so crazy so how could they accept it 100%. In fact, the only thing that would make them fully believe would be his Resurrection. Multiple prophets had worked miracles through God but the resurrection of Jesus would be the thing that finally make them believe. I don’t think James, and His brothers necessarily doubted, but there may have been the question, “how do we 100% accept this as truth?” That question wouldn’t be answered until the resurrection. We have the privilege of knowing the full story, James didn’t have that and so maybe he wasn’t an “unbeliever” but there were probably questions in his mind.

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  6. Both The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel According to the Hebrews make James a follower of his brother prior to the resurrection. While both may be of dubious historical value, they do constitute evidence of early Christian traditions concerning James.

    Eusebius says that James was appointed bishop of Jerusalem at the same time that Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle. That seems more consistent with James being an established member of the community rather than a recent convert. There is also the report in Acts that Jesus’ mother and brothers were with the apostles in the upper room.

    As far as I know, there are no early traditions portraying the appearance to James as triggering his conversion. What there is seems to point to him being a follower of his brother prior to the crucifixion.

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  7. It is evident in the Book of James that the author had had significant changes take place once he realized that his brother was in fact the Messiah that his Jewish faith eluded to in books such as Isaiah and Micah. In his book, James mentions the law. However, he does not specifically mention the Law of Moses. (Jobes, Pg. 174) He instead mentions “the royal law” which is to love one another. His emphasis upon not showing favoritism and caring for the impoverished speaks to his zeal as a Jew to uphold the greatest and next to greatest commandments: loving God and loving others. He understands that everyone regardless of social standing has an equal share in Christ. (Pg. 169) By using the concept of law, he draws from his Jewish roots to convey the importance of the new commandment Jesus gave humans which was to love one another. (John 13:34) Even though Jesus is barely referred to in the letter, James’ teaching agrees and compliments those of brothers very well. We see this by James stating that faith without works is dead. The royal law which Christians are to live by is love. Thus these two realizations correspond very well with Jesus’ teaching that reveals that sheep are those who care for the least of these. In addition to the law, James also incorporates literature styling very reminiscent of Jewish wisdom literature such as Proverbs. One can see this in his description of the tongue and the pros and cons that can come from it. (James 3) Jobes mentions that James the Just seems to know the non-canonical book Sirach, as his writings example a similar style. (Pg. 167) James used what he was familiar with in order to connect with an audience he related with. He may have done this in order that the Jews who read his epistle could understand the truth about Jesus in a way that related to their faith in Judaism.

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  8. I would like to think that James knew his brother was different while they grew up together. However, I also believe that Jame’s stubbornness and maybe even envy clouded his view of who his brother really was. I can picture Mary telling James about her meeting with the angel and James thinking, “I know Jesus is your favorite, you don’t have to make up stories about why though..”. I chuckle every time. As I read the passage in Jobes about the Christology of James, she made an interesting point. In the early first lines of this book, James is stating full submission and servant hood to Jesus, same as God. Jobes states, “This is especially remarkable, humanly speaking,.. given the psychological dynamics between siblings” (185). I cannot let my brother even have the bigger slice of pizza, I cannot imagine what James was doing. From the very first words of his letter in James 1:1 he has given all of who he is to Jesus, who was his earthy brother. However, deep in James’ heart he had to know that Jesus was not simply his brother. James was witness to Jesus’ sinless life style after all. I feel that even if James did not know Jesus was the messiah in the front of his brain, in the back of his head he always knew Jesus was greater and special. After Jesus appeared again it all clicked.

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  9. Personally, I feel it would be very hard to be Jesus’s brother and somehow not understand that, at the very least, something was different. According to Jobes, Jesus is a very important figure and he has a proper understand of Jesus’s position as at the right hand of God; and yet he does not talk that heavily about him. If James had been converted later, similar to Paul, one would assume a good amount of his writings would likely focus a lot on Jesus and the importance of salvation. However, not only is his work presented in a way that is often seen as contrasting Paul’s, but it is a lot more focused on wisdom and how to be a mature Christian. He also speaks very knowingly and puts a lot of importance on what Jesus said while he was alive, which would be strange if he wasn’t paying that much attention or agreeing with Jesus during said time. However, there is not a whole lot of evidence in favor of him being a Christian regardless, so there is certainly room for debate.

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